I wish I had the perfect story to share. The blow-by-blow of the one day that shows just how crazy working motherhood can get. A day when I was driven to the brink by my boss, my two little boys, my spouse, my own nonstop internal dialogue of “shoulds” ... and bounced back with an unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt smile and insta-perspective.
Oh sure, I have a bottomless supply of flashbulb memories (and I bet you do too): the evening that my husband gently told me that I was neglecting him and the kids—his actual word, neglecting. Or the time that my boss declared “girl code” and pointed out that my skirt (which I’d been so pleased to squeeze back into after maternity leave) was seethrough. Or the night that I got home from the office at 1 a.m. and then baked a Mickey Mouse birthday cake for 40 guests the next morning (because doesn’t everyone prefer their black icing homemade?). Or the time that my breast pump’s tubing cracked over my keyboard ... just as my milk let down. That was a fun call to the tech department.
But I might as well tell you about yesterday. Or the day before that.
Because getting to “happy” as a working mother isn’t about having some grand perspective on those top-ten bad days that any one of us can lament. It’s about busting through the finish line of the mini marathon of every day.
And I have news for you: You can handle it. You are handling it. Why? Because you have to. In spite of what the mommy wars would have you believe, working is not a “choice” for most of us. Dual-income families are standard. In 2015, 70 percent of American mothers with children under the age of 18 were employed or looking for work; and in families with two parents, only around 30 percent had stay-at-home moms, suggests data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. We work because we have to and because we want to. It may not always feel like it, but the roadblocks we face every day have done exactly for us what we hope life’s challenges will do for our children: They’ve given us grit. And pride. To me, that’s reason enough to love working.
My mom had an expression about me and my siblings, growing up, that I always misunderstood, until recently: “I love you best when you’re sleeping,” she’d say in all seriousness. Huh? What the heck, Mom? You loved us best when we were unconscious?
Only now that my own boys are ages 5 and 8 has it dawned on me what she meant. It wasn’t about us; it was about her. She loved us best when she had gotten to 9 p.m., having done every task—at home and at work—well enough that we were snug in our beds, another day x’d through on the calendar of working motherhood. She loved us best when she knew she’d done a good job of the juggle. She loved us best when she was happy with herself.
The challenges have changed—my husband and I often plug right back in at 9 p.m.—but that feeling of self-satisfaction has only gotten stronger. Studies tell me, and I believe them, that moms who work are happier. And children benefit too: Groundbreaking research out of Harvard shows that working mothers are more likely to have higher-earning daughters—and sons who contribute more time to housework. Imagine!
Like my mom, I’m a better wife, a better mother, and a better worker when I’m happy with myself. And like most women, I’m happiest when I have a plan. I hope the advice here offers you that: the tools and camaraderie you need to feel capable and proud.
The unspoken truth in many pairings of two well-intended working parents? The woman does more on the home front—whether she’s earning less or more than her partner.
So, how do you sync things up? This is a start:
Don't Let Maternity Leave Set Patterns You'll Never Outgrow. In an ideal world, you’d both take parental leave. In reality, women still take more time away from work. “That sets up the dynamic where the mom’s the primary parent and the dad’s the helper, which is not what is best for moms, dads, or kids,” says Scott Behson, Ph.D., author of The Working Dad’s Survival Guide. “The dynamic should be we are coparents.” Address the shift in duties before you go back to work—or use this revelation as a good opener to a conversation that can let you course-correct right now.
Let Go of Your Ideas of "His" Work and "Her" Work. You should each do the parts of child care and home care that you’re good at—and that you most enjoy. One mom I know, who’s a curriculum director at a museum, told me that she happily turfed laundry to her husband because he’s better at it. She, in turn, handles all things tech.
Decide to Be Okay with His Way of Doing Things. Nothing is less motivating to your partner than hearing, “Thanks, honey, but next time can you do it like this instead?” If you want someone to be your partner, you can’t act like their boss, says Carolyn Pirak, founding director of the Bringing Baby Home program at The Gottman Institute, which studies relationship health. “If I leave my kids with my husband for an hour, he has no responsibility to report back to me on how it went,” she says, citing trust as the key to happy partnerships. “Remember, you feel like you’re perfectly capable—and so does he.”
That’s ThirdPath Institute founder Jessica DeGroot’s term for office cultures that place zero importance on your personal life. “You see this in whole industries, like law,” says DeGroot, whose organization counsels working moms and dads on how to make time for family life. “Unfortunately, it’s also probably true in the majority of organizations once you get to a certain level of seniority. It’s expected that work always comes first.” Before you were a mom that might have been a bitter pill, but one you could swallow. These days? No way.
Create Pauses at Work. “Everyone’s scrambling to put out fire after fire, leaving no time to think and plan,” says DeGroot. Block off routine time in your calendar, she suggests, to pause and consciously assess, “and to develop fresh and creative ways to rethink priorities and find efficiencies.”
Plan Around the Seasons of Your Work. If you know a busy one is coming, say no to extra projects and volunteer requests in your personal life.
Delegate. It’s not slacking off. It’s giving someone else more junior an opportunity to grow. (And it’s granting yourself time to do bigger-picture thinking and work.) So if you can delegate, do it.
Block Out Time for What's Personal. Schedule in time for family, friends, and projects that feel of equal or greater importance than work. They’re not just extra credit. They’re vital.
There is no sharper kick in the gut than a missed class party or field trip. Deciding if you can attend is one of many hard calls around working parenthood. For the sake of argument (and because you’re conflicted enough to be reading this), let’s assume: 1) You want to go. 2) You can afford to go. And 3) Your kid really wants you to go.
Is it any wonder that mothers who have to think 12 steps ahead at any given moment — who are on call for their kids 24/7—have the top tips? Bow down...and then take notes from the floor. We did!
Lauren Smith Brody is the author of the upcoming book The Fifth Trimester (Doubleday, April 2017) and the founder of www.thefifthtrimester.com. She lives in New York with her husband and two young sons.